In the emotionally raw dramatic film “Meadowland,” Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson play a married couple named Sarah and Phil whose lives are shattered after their young son Jessie (their only child) disappears from a rest stop and is presumed to be kidnapped. As the years go by without any clues about what happened to their son, Sarah (who is an elementary schoolteacher) slowly falls apart, as she numbs herself with medications and she refuses to believe the possibility that her son might be dead. Meanwhile, Phil (who is a police officer) finds comfort in a support group for parents of missing and murdered family members, and he remains engaged in the ongoing investigation over his missing son. Further tension is added in the household when Phil’s drug-addled “black sheep” brother Tim (played by Giovanni Ribisi) temporarily moves in with the couple.
As Sarah grief spirals into a nervous breakdown, she fixates on a misfit student named Adam (played by Ty Simpkins) at her school and tentatively forms a bond with him. It’s a relationship that takes a turn when new evidence is uncovered that could reveal what happened to Jessie. “Meadowland” had its world premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Wilde (who is one of the producers of “Meadowland”) was among the stars who attended the premiere, as well as the Bombay Sapphire-sponsored after-party, which was held at PH-D at the Dream Downtown hotel. (Other party guests included Jason Sudeikis, Ribisi, Mark Feuerstein, Harvey Weinstein, Simpkins, Sebastian Stan, Steve Gutttenberg and Morano.) Here is what Wilde and “Meadowland” director Reed Morano said when they did a roundtable interview with me and other journalists the day after the Tribeca Film Festival premiere.
Jessie’s disappearance, which is in the very beginning of “Meadowland,” shows how quickly something like this can happen, even with a parent nearby. Can you talk about mapping out that scene, technically and emotionally?
Morano: I think I just wanted to not fall into the typical conventions of “OK, something bad’s about to happen. This is a thriller.” I didn’t want to do any indication of it. That’s why you really don’t see Jessie before he goes into the bathroom. We also didn’t have very much time.
We were like, “Let’s just do the whole action, and I’m going to follow you with a camera. Since we were [using] hand-held [cameras], it was easy to move and go off of them [Sarah and Phil]. We planned out in general where you guys were going to go look. And I just focused on Sarah for a while, and then I focused on Phil.
Wilde: It was very true-to-life. We wanted to show that tragic realism of when something bad happens, and when you play it back in your mind, you think, “What would I have done differently?”
And that guilt that both parents felt that they didn’t spend enough time focusing on parenting him when he went. They’re in the front seat, Sarah’s working on something, Phil’s driving. And there is Jessie in the back, entertaining himself. It’s a scene where there’s real life, real parenting, real family moment, where everyone is not necessarily completely, 100 percent focused on each other. And then they go into the rest stop.
And as Reed said, you don’t really see him because that’s how it would be played back in out minds. For me, watching it, that’s how Sarah is remembering her last moments with him. She remembers the cookie, she remembers his voice, she remembers small moments when looking at Phil.
And then once they get to the rest stop, it’s blotchy. She doesn’t really remember. She remembers he’s not there and he’s gone. And when she goes back in her mind, “Who was there? When was the last time that I touched him?” — what we would all do in trying to relive it and think, “What could I have done differently?” So I love it that Reed made that choice just to do as if it would be true to life: just another day, another moment.
Morano: Yes, because when you lose something, you don’t know ahead of time that it’s going to happen. There was this point in time when people thought there would be this poignant moment in the first scene in the car. And I was like, “No, this should be real life, completely real.”
It’s not perfect. It’s just a regular family hanging out, driving. Some people told us, “Oh, well that’s a little mundane.” But it’s a family driving on a road trip, and then him going into the bathroom.
I debated, “Should I show a shot of the bathroom first to reveal that the door wasn’t open initially?” But then, you’re putting too much emphasis on it. People going into the movie kind of know what’s going to happen.
An elephant plays a symbolic role in the movie, since Adam and Sarah both have a fascination for elephants. Can you talk about that?
Wilde: We weren’t even supposed to touch the elephant. That was the one rule on set. I couldn’t help it. I was so drawn to her. I would have done it all day.
Considering that most movie scenes are filmed out of sequence, can you take us into any pre-filming discussions you had about any particular scene that was emotionally heavy?
Morano: We’d confer a lot before the scenes. Olivia would do her homework, and I would do my homework. We both knew what the pre-Lithium period of Sarah was …
Wilde: It was a good marker for us.
Morano: Yeah, and also after she stops taking the Lithium, she wasn’t going to be still similar, as if in a Lithium haze.
Wilde: The first sign that something is off, when the lack of Lithium is taking its toll is when she says, “I wonder what he [Jessie] is doing right now.” And that’s when Phil knows she’s not on it anymore. There’s something wrong.
And also, it’s happening when the investigation is coming to a head and a suspect is suddenly presented to them, and a horrifying theory of what could have happened to their son is presented to them. That is the moment when Sarah and Phil spin out in their different ways. It’s unbearable at that point. But yeah, we would confer on pre-Lithium, post-Lithium and a few other markers that we created for ourselves.
We had a language of our own to discuss Sarah that probably no one on set understood except for us. But it was the only way that it was possible that we were both keeping it on track. We both didn’t want to have a complete arc, but there was a movement to it that we were both aware of. But it’s subtle. It’s not like [Sarah] suddenly loses it.
Morano: To be honest, some of that happened in the editing too. We had the arc in shooting, but we ended up having to move some things around, because Sarah does do some extreme stuff. In a perfect assembly to the script, we realized, not because we had nailed the arc on our end, but story-wise, it worked better when certain moments were connected to other moments. It really worked better to show the smaller version of the arc, which was with Phil, versus the arc with Sarah. In the end, I would say that a lot of things are out of order.
Wilde: It’s a perfect example that when you make a movie, you make three movies: the one you write, the one you shoot, the one you edit. This movie was the ultimate example of that.
Morano: Yeah, totally.
Can you talk about how Adam having Asperger’s syndrome affected Sarah’s perception of him?
Wilde: He’s an outsider, and she relates to that. He has trouble connecting and communicating, and she relates to that. So that was the reason for it. And I think we made the really choice, along with Ty, to create Adam to be subtly different, so that Sarah would be the one to recognize what makes him special. Everyone else had abandoned him.
She in no way sees herself as his proxy mother or him her proxy son, but I think she’s connected more to him than he is to her. He’s probably the only one she wants to be around because he’s not asking her to act normal. And she’s not asking him to act normal.
Reed, your son Casey Walker played Jessie in “Meadowland.” What went into the decision to cast him?
Morano: There were practical reasons and emotional reasons to cast him. He was the best one. I auditioned a lot of kids. I was trying to avoid [casting Casey as Jessie]. We talked about it. He was so perfect. Not only does he look like he could be Luke and Olivia’s son, he’s not an actor. He’s really subtle.
I know him. He’s been my muse for a long time. I take a lot of photos of him. But I just knew that he was wise beyond his years. I just knew he would be a natural behind the camera. Originally, I was scared of the idea, because I was like, “That’s so f*cked up for me to do that. Am I putting this idea out in the universe and my own son is going to go missing, God forbid?”
And then I thought, “No, maybe it’s the other way around. I’m doing this so it won’t happen to me. I also thought, “It’s such a huge thing to ask of these actors — in particular, Olivia, who has just had a son [Otis, born on April 20, 2014]. I know from experience that right after you’ve had a baby is the most emotional time period. It’s such a weird time for women. That’s why post-partum [depression] happens and all these things.
I just thought, “I’m asking so much of her. I want to be in it as much as possible.” I also wanted to make sure I got it right. I don’t know. Maybe it would’ve been better if I had found a kid I wasn’t emotionally connected to, so I could find a way to make it emotional without having extra baggage attached, but I wanted to wanted to really feel what [Sarah and Phil] were feeling. And I felt that was the closest thing to doing it.
Wilde: I think in terms of performance, something I love about the opening scene is how natural it is. It’s hard to get a child actor to relax to that point. I felt really lucky. Casey is not only a good actor, but we got those real moments that kids typically don’t do when they’re performing.
Morano: And it should be noted that pretty much all the dialogue in the car is ad-libbed by the actors. We ended up not really using anything from the script. The only thing we used was when he said, “I’m thirsty.” And Luke says, “Milk or juice?” But then Luke added in “Beer.” And Casey was like, “Beer!” And then that whole story Casey told about Uncle Tim … He just made that up.